MUSIC TEACHER Yiming Li teaches students at the Chinese American International School to play the guqin, a folk musical instrument. The San Francisco
MUSIC TEACHER Yiming Li teaches students at the Chinese American International School to play the guqin, a folk musical instrument. The San Francisco school has become a model for Chinese-language studies. (SEAN CONNELLEY - Staff)
IN HIS BLUE TRACK PANTS and braces, 12-year-old Adam Senan isn't the most intimidating child.

He is small, thin and seems eager to grow the extra inches boys his age crave. But he has one trick up his sleeve bound to impress adults in the years ahead: He speaks Chinese and it falls from his preteen lips like a hip-hop star performing his latest hit.

At school, however, Adam's skills get lost in the crowd. Everyone at the Chinese American International School in San Francisco, where Adam has been a student since age 3, spends half the day learning in Chinese and the other half learning in English. He is the first person in his family to study Mandarin. "I guess if I go work in China or something, I'll have an advantage," he said recently, pivoting between his adopted and native tongue with ease.

"I already speak Chinese."

Since its quiet beginning in 1981, when only four children showed up for the first day of classes, Adam's school has been teaching students to speak, read and write in Mandarin, a language that once held little allure for Americans beyond those with ties to China.

All that has changed. China's economy is exploding and so is interest in the world's most populous nation. At the Chinese American International School's annual photo shoot in June, nearly 400 students squeezed together on the play yard to fit inside the frame.


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But within the last year, the campus has received a flood of attention from a rather unusual crowd — people with no interest in sending their children to the private school a few blocks from City Hall.

In addition to calls from prospective parents, regular inquiries now pour in from teachers, administrators and parents looking to launch Chinese programs at their own schools. To meet the skyrocketing demand, the school's Institute for Teaching Chinese Language and Culture, created to promote the study of Chinese, is reinventing itself as a go-to resource for schools across the country hoping to offer the language.

"I think what all of us in the profession are trying to do is dramatically increase the study of Chinese," said Andrew Corcoran, head of the school and executive director of the Institute. "The latest figures indicate that only 24,000 students study Chinese in the U.S. and 200 million Chinese students are studying English. We don't even get a line on the graph, that's how small it is."

Because Chinese courses for non-Chinese students have been relatively rare in the United States, many in the field say there is limited guidance when it comes to selecting textbooks, recruiting teachers and tackling politically sticky curriculum decisions, like whether students should study the traditional Chinese characters used in Taiwan and Hong Kong, or simplified characters, ubiquitous in mainland China.

Over the past seven months, four tour groups have taken advantage of the school's open doors, passing through its bright halls, tip-toeing into classrooms where delicate Chinese characters adorn posters and art projects displayed on the walls.

"Most people who come on the tour have a pretty strong inclination to set up a program already," Corcoran said. "What we do is talk to them about things that they are going to have to face along the way."

Worldwide allure

The curious visitors often are from the Bay Area, but also come from as far away as Colorado, Florida, North Carolina and the Philippines. They nibble on egg tarts, Chinese sugar cakes and meat dumplings in the school's bland conference room, pausing to scribble notes on teacher recruitment and setting up exchange programs with Chinese schools.

Robert Miller attended a recent school tour. Despite having flown into the Bay Area from Florida for one day, he was energized after the tour and spoke excitedly about the future.

Over the past few years, St. Mark's Academy, the Episcopal school his son attends in Cocoa, Fla., has seen students leave for top schools nearby. Miller is optimistic a Chinese program will draw families back.

"We've started to slide a little bit behind some of the public schools," he said. "I think that if we manage our expectations and get a teacher or two, we should be able to recruit (new students) and get started."

Recent estimates on the number of American students studying Chinese range from 16,000 to 24,000, although a 2005 report by the Asia Society said there are no comprehensive or reliable surveys on the subject.

In California, 41 public and private schools offer Chinese, the Asia Society's most recent list shows. No one disputes the number of students trying to master the language will grow.

In 2005, U.S. Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., introduced the United States-China Cultural Engagement Act, calling for $1.3 billion in federal funding to augment Chinese classes in schools, educational exchanges between the two countries and America's business and diplomatic presence in China.

In January, President Bush followed, announcing the creation of a National Security Language Initiative to encourage Americans to learn critical foreign languages, including Chinese, Arabic, Japanese and Korean.

The College Board now is offering a college- level Mandarin course and exam this year, expected to further fuel demand.

"The level of interest and the intensity is unprecedented. For people who are in the field, we really know," said Shuhan Wang, executive director of the Asia Society's Chinese Language Initiative. "Almost on a daily basis, we receive people's e-mail or phone calls saying, We are trying to start a program. Can you help us?' "

Wang is too busy to respond to every inquiry, so she directs most questions to the Web site www.askasia.org/chinese, which includes information on starting language programs, lists schools that already offer Chinese and explains why Americans should study the language.

"China is an emerging superpower, so the key is how do we engage this emerging superpower, instead of confronting (it)," Wang said. "Our kids really need to think about the world as their playground . . . instead of just thinking about here and now and in this place, because that won't work anymore."

Countering culture clash

For Corcoran and others promoting the language full-time, there is concern that the heightened enthusiasm for Chinese could fizzle if the right teachers aren't found and excellent classes aren't established early.

The school director, a self-professed "late learner" who speaks Chinese at the same level as his second-graders, worries a principal might be tempted to toss a Mandarin program simply because the first teacher hired from China stumbled in the classroom.

Annie Liu taught in China for nearly a decade before coming to the Chinese American International School, where she has worked for six years.

In China, she had 67 students in her class, "but I didn't feel that tired," she said. The 15 students in her American class wiped her out.

"We have to earn the respect of the (American) kids," she said. "They will show you, if they are bored."

It's fairly common for schools considering Mandarin to hire teachers from the Chinese government's teacher program, run through the Office of Chinese Language Council International. The program functions somewhat like the Peace Corps, enlisting eager volunteers to teach in American classrooms for a small stipend.

But teachers can quickly find themselves in over their heads. In China, an educator might be accustomed to lecturing 60 or more students at a time. In the United States, classes are smaller, but teachers are expected to engage the children with probing questions and conversation.

"One of the realities that we need to deal with is that teachers who are successful in China might not be successful in the U.S.," Corcoran said. "If a teacher is simply transplanted, they are really going to struggle."

This fall, lower school director Kevin Chang flew to Minnesota to assist a new arrival from China with the transition. After receiving less than two weeks of training in China, the 25-year-old teacher arrived at The Blake School, a private school with campuses in Minneapolis and surrounding towns, to teach middle and high school Chinese.

The two men dined at a Chinese restaurant to talk about Chang's visit and the administrator spent the next two days shadowing his charge at school, making note of his every move.

"The school was looking to have him do more student-centered teaching," Chang said. "I'm not telling him, You need to do this, this, this.' I am just letting him know there is another way of teaching this lesson."

Once the kinks are worked out, students in Chinese classes seem to enjoy learning a language new to American schools. Although the benefits of being bilingual may not be realized for several years, students at the Chinese American International School get a kick out of communicating in Mandarin, a language unfamiliar to many of their parents.

Cecilia Shaw, an eighth-grader who started studying Mandarin in kindergarten, speaks Spanish at home, Chinese at school and English everywhere else. On occasion, she'll want to use a certain word, but only will know how to say it in Chinese.

"I blurt it out," she said. "My parents are like, What are you talking about?' "

For more information on starting a Chinese language program, visit the Institute for Teaching Chinese Language and Culture at www.cais.org or the Asia Society's language site at www.askasia.org/chinese.


Contact Grace Rauh at grauh@angnewspapers.com or (510) 208-6488.